Historical American Dance Evolution
by Najia Marlyz
posted June 3, 2012
Originally published in 1986 for Habibi, volume 9, #9;
Up-dated and re-written for Gilded Serpent May 16, 2012
"Did you ever see a dream walking? Well, I did!"
says the old song lyric written by Mack Gordon.
“…Oh! it’s so grand!”
Back in the early ‘80s, I went to one Bellydance show where I witnessed a dream dancing, and it was grand! The show was produced by a friendly and accomplished dance teacher whose name I would mention, giving credit for her creative production; however, if I did that, I would not be able to tell you about her entire show in the way that I experienced it. Since I have never wanted to be a reporter, and much less an actual critic for a journal, I think it best to leave all the players in this odd little event anonymous. Let it suffice to say that the show was located somewhere on the west coast of the US; also, let me assure you that I had a memorable time and enjoyed the entire production in many of its aspects.
It is not the modern tradition of Bellydance reporting to speak honestly about any public Bellydance performances—be they Raqs Sharqi, Tribal or Steam Punk. For instance, I have never seen a dance production panned in print the way it is, frequently, in the news media that reports and critiques artistic community events.
Yet, we Bellydancers hear (and expect to hear!) nothing but glowing accounts of standing ovations and thrilled audiences, sans any negative impression or vague suggestion about the possible improvement of the events being commented upon. Nonetheless, sometimes, what gives me an inner pang of pain is our self-imposed “sin of omission” in honest reportage. Sometime what is not said is more important than what actually makes it into print or into the report.
Also painful is the outrageous sincerity with which dancers present the most awful schlock—naiveté juxtaposed to the sophisticated, exquisite subtlety in fluid movement, apparently overshadowed by crass over-use of aggressive action.
The talent and energy superimposed needlessly upon a dance set that requires paucity borne of sophistication from the dancer can be astonishing, while a dance, which in fact cries out for subtlety, winds up being performed with a huge huff of air that nearly blows the hat off your head, by a dancer with an apparent lack of artistic judgment. Let me assure you, this production I saw had it all!
The whole evening took place in a funky little hall with a stage that must have been added as an after-thought. The pseudo-stage had curtains against the rear wall as a backdrop that were the color of aged stone-ground mustard, neatly clashing with nearly every costume on stage. The proscenium itself lent the dancers on stage an oddly Amazonian appearance because it did not have the correct theatrical proportions or configuration. However, in this instance, the peculiarity of the stage was perfect; it matched the show in its bizarre makeup. Nearly everybody in the show was a competent dancer in her own special way, and a few were even "big name" dancers in this region and on the west coast in the decade of the ‘80s. Nevertheless, what I am about to describe to you is not yesteryear’s news, and was certainly not a travesty in any way; it was just, well, an amateurish evening’s entertainment billed as a big dance event—terribly overshadowed by a political correctness that would only grow more demanding during the ensuing decades.
The Television Reporters:
The room was seasonably hot, so that watching a long show was, in some ways, a physical sacrifice for the unfortunate audience. The local television station had sent representatives, lending a great air of “super-occasion” to the get-together. I recall that my sister and I buzzed in whispers about the reporter’s intrusive nature. Interviews were made for the news program and the female news-gatherer gave us a rendition of the goings-on for the camera. We speculated that this report would become the parting "ha-ha moment" on the 11 O’clock News. However, apparently the entire report hit the cutting room floor, since it was not on the news that night, and did not air as a feature on the television channel’s magazine program either. Maybe it was just as well.
We further speculate now that what happened behind the scenes was that the female news-gatherer probably had been respectful and dignified, forgetting to mention the usually necessary words: jiggle, shimmy, shake, or wiggle.
The American Dream Dancer:
One exceptional dancer in the show had the mistress of ceremonies introduce her dance as "a truly American Bellydancer". I confess, I whispered behind my hand to my sister’s ear and asked, “Haven’t we already seen that?" Well, this particular dancer made me eat my own words! She was a dream both walking and dancing. She floated out onto that grotesque little stage and mesmerized her audience with the most truly fantasy-styled American Bellydance that I have ever seen outside of the MGM Grand in Reno. She was resplendent in her pink, white, and peach costume, and all of her movements were graceful, demure, and sweet. She was dramatic without the usual melodramatic mugging that so often passes as intense drama, maintaining a placidly pleasant expression. Her hair was a little longer than the secretary’s who works behind the back desk at the DMV, and her dimples were only slightly engaged, so as not to over-remind us of actor Kirk Douglas’ harshly cleft chin. She played her finger cymbals delicately—pah-der-rum, pah-der-rum—like a good woman whose children will never grow up to be cowboys, but wealthy computer jockeys instead. She was an American girl, through and through and so was her dance.
Her one blatant flaw (and it was a doozey!) was that she danced all over her music, apparently not hearing any of the trills, minor echoes, cascading sounds, changes in instrumentation, or anything outside of the forefront of the rhythms in the musical arrangement.
What was the source of her unforgivable sin? She had chosen for her American styled dance–Egyptian music recorded on cassette tape! (There were no CDs in those days.) Her movements simply did not “fit” or enhance the content of the music except for its rhythm. She simply ignored (or could not feel) all the special accouterments that make Egyptian music complex and captivating. As lovely as this dancing vision was, the great American dance style did not lend itself well to the complexities of the Egyptian fully-orchestrated music!
Music for American Bellydance:
I would have preferred to see her dance to the music of one of the American Arabic groups who ply their duel craft here in the US. A favorite of mine, featuring Doug Adams, is the west coast band Light Rain who has a background of American bluegrass and an interest in the rhythms and modes of the Middle East. Doug and his group have produced three excellent recordings that I hope you have heard: “Dream Dancer”, “Dream Suite”, and “A Valentine to Eden”, all of which have excellent cuts that could be blended into a spiffy American-styled routine.
You may know that this group, Light Rain, has granted rights to use certain selections of its instrumentals to the famous Joffre Ballet Company and cuts were featured in the movie titled “The Company” that, though slightly dated now, you may want to rent on DVD, if not for the story, then for its fascinating dances. Americans do have a unique way of boiling things down to their essential basics and necessary spices…
I tried to find that same outstanding dancer for an interview after the performance, but alas, was unable to find her; perhaps she was there, blending into the crowd like a chameleon when out of her costume. I still wonder if there were any other interesting facets of her dance but never saw her dance again. I do hope that during the ensuing years she has learned to hear all the music and respond to it rather than simply slithering through it…
Let me sum it all up in the words of the Channel 3 videographer (not the reporter/news-talker) while he stood beside me at the show: "Well, that’s it! She was the best one; I have had enough! She was the only one who knew how to dance."
He had seen a little over half the show, with some excellent dancers and award-winning troupes, but I suspect that his reaction was similar to what might be expected from a good portion of the general public here in America. He, not knowing a Beledi rhythm from a biorhythm, was not interested in endless renderings of tek-a-tek, doom, tek-a-tek like the dedicated aficionadas of Danse Orientale. If the show is presented to the general public, which it nearly always is, at least in part, then it should be an experience geared to their understanding and those “authentic/ethnic” renderings, should be clearly labeled by the MC and kept short!
We Oriental dancers often blather on about acceptance, and charge dancers with the responsibility to “educate their audiences”. However, the audience doesn’t read our dance magazines and hardly buys a ticket to a dance show expecting to be educated. It is unrealistic to imagine the public (who only wants to be entertained) will respond with an understanding heart to the quarter tones of foreign music without explanation of any sort.
The public is willing to learn, but we dancers must also give them a break. We can put a little thought and planning about the so-called educational perspectives in our shows—into the cultural differences and the ethnic aspects, or even include a sentence or paragraph on the souvenir programs that could help others appreciate the artistry of our dance form without becoming pedantic.
Sparkle, excitement, energy, as well as colorfully strange and unique costumes are dazzling, but they are not the total picture; even if entertainment must be our focus, we must remember not to attempt missionary work on behalf of the arts of foreign cultures.
The Role of the Master/Mistress of Ceremonies:
Also, I suggest that the emcees for our shows be chosen and trained for their important role. It is not enough to say in rounded tones:
"Here is the lovely and talented Bahaloolah; in real life she is a brain surgeon and mother of four who performs the Bellydance weekly at the Stuffed Grape Leaf Deli down on Main Street."
The emcees I have seen sometimes appear to have been scared out of their minds to be speaking in front of an audience for the first time ever. Conversely, some are so cock-sure of themselves that they fill in the awkward moments with pitiful jokes—like the one about the farmer’s daughter who…
The emcee sets the general tone of the show and has the power to convince the audience to expect and believe that they are involved in a magical moment in show business; yet, we don’t want to spoil the moment with too much pompous “educating”.
The audience does not really need to know the next dancer has constructed her bra and belts entirely from the caps of old Coca-Cola bottles that were produced between 1940 and 1952. What one outfit was really made of at this particular show was so peculiar that I became so enthralled with it, staring at the costume, (speculating on just how she came by these unlikely objects) that neither I nor anyone else at my table could remember one thing about her dance. It was not a magical moment—except for her peculiar costume design!
Minding our Manners and Nuances of Audience Etiquette:
Even in the face of adversity, as a dance coach and instructor, I always have to be on my most guarded behavior in these Bellydance extravaganzas, keeping a smile on my face and an air of unconditional acceptance no matter what is happening. This manner is necessary because of the inherent homegrown quality of most Bellydance performances. Amateur performers often find themselves thrown onto a stage or a home gig presented as professionals when they are not, and they are unable to withstand the brickbats of public criticism.
Harsh (or even minor) public criticism can cause irreparable damage to the evolution of an artistic dancer with thin skin who is still at the stage of being an amateur but being presented as a fully developed performer.
Those of us who are long-time dancers and dance teachers usually realize this vulnerability and refrain from a stray remark or a frown escaping that may be perceived by performers as negative comments about their performance. In fact, the negativity may not even be referring to the dance being performed on stage. However, sometimes even the best of us instructors and dance stars forget who is watching us as opposed to the performance on stage. A dance teacher’s grimace when someone steps on her toe can be (and often is) interpreted by unseasoned performers as unwarranted criticism of their dance. Also, dance teachers must never go to see performances when they are not feeling well for the same reason.
When positivity becomes too difficult to maintain, I cease to watch the stage and begin to watch the audience. There you can see some compelling dramas and complicated plots with the most unbelievable colorful costuming and wild make-up!
Ready for more?
- 4-30-12Teaching Down Under in 1988, A Bert Balladine Reminiscence: Australia & New Zealand
International seminars make you do more than you think you can when you see the dedication and sacrifices people make just to attend.
I have observed a cycle in which, periodically, emerging dancers who have obtained slightly more prominence in the craft begin to make recycled attempts to regulate it through instructional devices in order to control it to their own personal ends.
- 12-13-11 Saudis in America, Encounters of a Dancing Kind
However, no. Instead, Prince X sent a drink to everyone at my table, except me, just to underscore his apparent disapproval of my offensive behavior…
- 9-2-11 Debunking the "Golden Era" of Bellydance, Part 2, Finding Your Gigs
Nevertheless, you don’t have to wait for someone else to hire you; you can hire yourself!
- 8-29-11 Debunking the "Golden Era" of Bellydance, Part 1
Just like today, dancers had to create the place, the time, and the excuse to show or “sell” our newly-found artistry or resign ourselves to dance in parks and on street-corners or in syncopated troupe dances forever. So much for creativity and self-expression…
- 7-29-11 Dancer Cancer, Part Two: Who? Me?
Still, the human heart is woven with threads of hope, and mine did not doubt that if I could make it through the onslaught of doctors, surgeries, pain, and gymnastic therapy, I would, someday dance again.
- 6-26-11 Dancer Cancer, Part One: Hopping on One Foot
Still, I was confident that there would be no further problem and that I was letting my vanity get the best of me. By wanting to look good, I had caused all my own discomfort, I reassured myself. He said I would have the biopsy report in a few days and to call my referral doctor to hear what the UC San Francisco laboratory report said.
- 5-12-11 Get Over It! Soundbyte Bellydance Part Two
Imagine yourself dancing inside of a huge plastic jug full of gel or detergent. Pull and push your movements through the viscosity with conviction!
- 4-10-11 Sound-Byte Bellydance, Part One: Evolution of Bellydance
Through her clear description of what she wanted to learn, I was able to look inside our recent dance evolution and see what we dance teachers in the west have done to change Bellydance here in the U.S., how we have changed and modified it into something it never was in the lands of its origins.
- 5-31-12 GigBag Check #37 with April Rose
April Rose is at this moment, June 2012, finishing her Masters program at UCLA. She worked with Unmata, and will tour internationally with the Bellydance Superstars in the Fall of 2012. This video was shot at the Internationally Bellydance Conference of Canada in May of 2012. Along with her Gigbag tour are snippits of her teaching and performing at IBCC.
- 5-30-12 The Kalbelia, The Charming Gypsies of Rajasthan
The snake dance was derived from the practice of men bringing snakes to the doors of people and entertaining them by making the snake dance to music and the money collected from people is a source of income. This dance incorporates subtle dance moves that are meant to represent the movements of a cobra as it slithers on the ground
MaShuqa, known for her beautful make up, shows us a few secrets! MaShuqa is a well known bellydancer in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is also the wife of Carl Sermon, whose photos you will see frequently on GildedSerpent.com. This video was filmed back stage at the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition in February 2011
No part of me can say that it has been an easy ride! Setting forth alone in a new country, speaking a new language with no one to vouch for you is a daring adventure, not to mention a lonely one.
- 5-17-12 Meet the Neighbors, Chapter 2 of Veiling in the Desert
I sit here in my Bedouin house with a cup of green tea and some helawa (halva) and I can still hear the women laughing outside. Although my focus here is to learn the dance, I always feel that in order to understand a traditional dance form, I need also to understand the culture.